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Next space age has a business model, astronauts say

By the CNN Wire Staff
Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson was among the astronauts who spoke with CNN from space on Wednesday.
Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson was among the astronauts who spoke with CNN from space on Wednesday.
  • Astronauts say commercial partners will be in the future of space flight
  • A mission specialist says he hopes space travel will be cheaper and more frequent
  • Atlantis is scheduled to land Thursday morning
  • The landing will mark the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program

(CNN) -- As crew members of the last space shuttle flight hovered over Earth for the final time, they spoke with CNN Wednesday about the next frontier in space flight.

"I think that what we're going to see in the next few years is a very broadening horizon," shuttle commander Chris Ferguson told CNN's Ali Velshi hundreds of miles above Earth. "What we'll do is we'll turn over the reins of that business to commercial partners."

Atlantis is scheduled to land at 5:56 a.m. ET Thursday, capping a 30-year shuttle program that has sent 355 astronauts into space.

But Atlantis mission specialist Rex Walheim said he hopes the end of NASA's shuttle program marks the beginning of more flight opportunities.

"I think it's going to open up a new era of space flight," Walheim said. "We want to take that next step -- get access to Earth orbit cheaper and more frequent. We can do that by partnering with our commercial partners, and that will allow NASA to really focus on the exploration," such as going beyond the Earth's orbit or to asteroids and Mars.

"I think it's going to be an extremely enjoyable and extremely exciting time for NASA," Walheim said. "It's just that we have to get through this transition."

Atlantis lifted off July 8 on NASA's final space shuttle mission.

The first shuttle, Columbia, blasted off in April 1981. Since then, space shuttle crews have fixed satellites, performed scientific studies, and ferried materials and people to International Space Station Alpha, a football field-sized construction project in orbit.

NASA has sent five space shuttles on a total of 135 missions.

When Atlantis lands, it will leave the United States with no way to lift humans into space for the first time in decades. NASA will rely on the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to orbit.